A worker tries to extinguish a fire in South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir district. (Antara Photo/Nova Wahyudi)

Erik Meijaard: Who Is Accountable for Indonesia's Fire Disaster?


OCTOBER 16, 2015

A few months ago, there was a buzz going around the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Under the new president, they had finally managed to merge with the previously independent Ministry of Environment. A long-term dream had come through. From now on, the government would be able to simultaneously manage the nation’s environment and forests, for the good of the Indonesian people, as is stated in Indonesia’s constitution.

And the signs of success were already on the wall. After thorough study, the Department of Forest Fire showed that between 2010 and 2014 the total number of fire hotpots in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Sulawesi decreased yearly from 47,112 in 2010 to 19,316 in 2014. Effective governance?

At the start of 2015, it all still looked good. The website of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry reports that between Jan. 1 and July 30 July this year, there were only 5,284 hotspots, compared to the 12,068 in the same period in 2014. The authorities were clearly on top of the fire issue. All signs suggested they would finally get rid of the annual scourge of fire and haze.

Of course, there were some pesky scientists mumbling things about El Nino climate forecasts predicting a drought unlike any the country had seen before. But what do these mostly foreign scientists really know about the Indonesian climate?

Then suddenly the world went dark. Out of the blue, the driest dry season in decades struck, and everything and everyone started burning. Before long, half of Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra had mysteriously gone on fire— a true natural disaster!

The Global Forest Watch fires tool indicates that from July 1 to Oct. 6 2015, there were a total 69,413 fire alerts in Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra. So suddenly things had gone awfully wrong. And according to many, this natural disaster was totally unexpected.

But did no one in the government read the papers? This year’s El Nino was on many people’s radar from early in 2015. Surely the 1997-98 El Nino and resulting fire disaster is still burned in the memory of at least a few top-level decision-makers. It should have been obvious that it would be a really bad fire year again. And what did the responsible government authorities do to prevent this man-made, not natural disaster? Not enough, apparently.

Why is no one in the government taking responsibility? Has anyone said “sorry”? Has anyone been fired or resigned because of his or her failure to predict and prevent the present disaster? The government has had long-standing programs to prevent land fires and clearly these are not working. Where is the accountability?

Compare this to football. Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool’s manager, was recently sacked after blowing 250 million pounds ($386 million) on new players, but without increasing the performance of the team. That same week two other Premier League managers either resigned or were fired because of disappointing results. Even “the Special One,” Jose Mourinho, is under pressure after his League-winning Chelsea managed only eight points from eight games.

Others who may be given the sack include Stuart Lancaster who led the English rugby team to their disastrous exit from the Rugby World Cup, and chief executive Martin Winterkorn of Volkswagen who went for early retirement after some pretty nasty finds about the company he managed.

Even some high-level politicians recently resigned. The Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina, stepped down in September after being accused of bribery. And in England, John Sewel, deputy speaker of Britain’s House of Lords, resigned after The Sun published photos and video allegedly showing him snorting lines of cocaine with prostitutes. Well, that’s fair enough, I guess.

Many people in the world take accountability for messing up or under-performing. But why has no official stepped forward in Indonesia to put up his or her hand, said mea culpa and acknowledged the failure to avoid an environmental and social disaster that is costing the country and its neighbors at least $47 billion -- and counting? That is 5 percent of Indonesia’s GDP. Months of economic growth out of the window along with the haze.

Shouldn’t at least someone in the government take responsibility for its failure to do anything to prevent the fire and haze disaster? Of course there has been a recent cabinet reshuffle. But still, if someone would step down it would at least indicate that the government takes its role as the responsible manager of the country seriously.

Reading the news, I am not convinced that this is how the government sees its role. For example, the head of the Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) told an international audience to stop complaining because Indonesia is doing all it can. But is that true? Could Indonesia not have been better prepared to prevent and fight fires in an El Nino?

Surely, the country could have developed policies allowing a full fire ban in exceptional circumstances, or make budgets available for effective rapid reaction to stop initial fires from spreading. None of these seem to have been sufficiently in place, suggesting that the government was not prepared and could have done more.

If Indonesia is indeed going to address the fire and haze problem in the next three years as suggested by President Joko Widodo, then the people in charge better get the strategies and laws in place now to act immediately when required. Also, there has to be recognition that someone in government is ultimately responsible for solving the problem, and needs to be held accountable for failing to do so or rewarded for succeeding. Such transparent governance is the least the government can do to reward voters for their trust.

It might be a good idea for some senior government officials and legislators involved in the fire and haze issue to spend the next few weeks in Kalimantan’s or Sumatra’s peat lands and help fight fires. Kudos to the president for actually having been out there.

Maybe that kind of up close and personal experience of health impacts, failed harvests and canceled flights might get the message across that fires and haze are not a natural phenomenon but a man-made disaster.

It might also clarify that ultimately the government is responsible for solving the problem.

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative.